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Germanic monarchy, also called barbarian monarchy, was a monarchical system of government which was predominant among the Germanic tribes of Late Antiquity (circa 300 AD - 500 AD) and the Early Middle Ages (circa 500 AD - 1000 AD). It is often contrasted with feudal monarchy and national monarchy, the later medieval systems which developed out of it.

The term "barbarian monarchy" was proposed early in the twentieth century by Russian medievalists who saw similarities between the Germanic tribal monarchies and those of the nomadic peoples of the Steppe.[1]

Germanic monarchies were primitive states. At the apex of a society of mostly free men stood the monarch (almost always a king), who had a few limited functions. The Germanic monarchies were originally pagan, but their contact, during the Völkerwanderung or Migration Period, with the Roman Empire and the Christian Church greatly altered their structure. They soon developed into different entities in which the king was more than the leader of a war band and the law more than oral tradition.


Germanic kings

The Germanic king originally had three main functions:

  • To serve as judge during the popular assemblies.
  • To serve as a priest during the sacrifices.
  • To serve as a military leader during wars.

The office was received hereditarily, but a new king required the consent of the people before assuming the throne. All sons of the king had the right to claim the throne, which often led to co-rulership (diarchy) where two brothers were elected kings at the same time. This evolved into the territories being considered the hereditary property of the kings, patrimonies, a system which fueled feudal wars, because the kings could claim ownership of lands beyond their de facto rule.

As a sort of pagan high priest, the king often claimed descent from some deity. In the Scandinavian nations, he administered blóts at important cult sites, such as the Temple at Uppsala. Refusal to administer the blóts could lead to the king losing power (see Haakon the Good and Anund Gårdske).


With the decline of the Roman Empire, much of her provinces came under the rule of Germanic kings: Italia to the Ostrogoths, Gallia to the Franks, Britannia to the Anglo-Saxons, and Africa to the Vandals. These nations had by then been in contact with Rome for a century or more and had adopted many Roman customs. They had been Christianised too and pagan practice was slowly being replaced.

The Frankish state under her Merovingian dynasty had many of the characteristics of Germanic monarchy under heavy influence from secular and ecclesiastic Rome. Her kings, through their division of the territory, treated her not as a state independent of themselves, but as their patrimony, land won by conquest (theirs and their forefathers'). The king was primarily a war leader and a judge. There are many theories to explain the collapse of Merovingian power, most of which blame the inability of later Merovingians in war as an important factor. The commonly-cited occasion of Sigebert III sobbing in his saddle after a defeat (the king was then only ten years old) highlights the importance of victory in battle for a king who is chiefly a warrior.

The principle of election, which determined Germanic succession, was abandoned in those states under the heaviest influence from the papacy (such as Merovingian Gaul, where hereditary succession and the divine right of the reigning dynasty was recognised). In Anglo-Saxon Britain, the principle survived until the Norman Conquest removed it. Anglo-Saxon kings were elected by the witena gemót. Finally, the principle survived in some form or other for centuries after the demise of the last Germanic monarchies. The civil wars of medieval Scandinavia and the electorate of the Holy Roman Empire are part of its legacy.

Germanic monarchies







The name king is derived from the Anglo-Saxon cyning, which in turn is derived from the Proto-Germanic *kuningaz. The original meaning is contested. One theory is that the element *kun relates to the word kindred or that it originally meant descendant of a ruler. Another theory is that it is originally meant belonging to the woman, i.e. belonging to the mother goddess and referring to the king's role as a priest.

Modern forms of *kuningaz:

The word *kuningaz has been borrowed by several non-Germanic languages (note that Slavic kral, król and korol are not derived from this word):

Interestingly, the word differs from other Indo-European words for "king", most of which are clearly related (Latin rex, Sanskrit rājan and Irish , for example).

Other names

In Germanic traditions there are many kennings for king, such as Giver of Rings used in Beowulf: a king was expected to give golden rings to reward his warriors.


  1. ^ Painter, A History of the Middle Ages 284−1500.


  • William A. Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity, University of California Press (1970).
  • Joseph H. Lynch, Christianizing Kinship: Ritual Sponsorship in Anglo-Saxon England, Cornell University Press (1998), ISBN 0-8014-3527-7.
  • Painter, Sidney. A History of the Middle Ages 284−1500. New York, 1953.

See also


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